Dream Job or Day Job?


Most people I know have a frustrated passion. There's something they'd rather do a lot more of, but making a living gets in the way. Some people simply accept that their passion will get short shrift, while other people make great efforts to arrange their life so they can follow their passion. For the latter folks, I'm familiar with three general strategies: dream job, day job, and early retirement.

Dream Job

The dream job, of course, is making a living by following your passion. However small the fraction of writers, artists, actors, dancers, musicians, and athletes actually making a living at their art, you know it's at least possible — you can see people actually doing so any time you turn on the TV. With some hard work, a little luck, and the talent you were born with, maybe you could be one of them.

Of course, not everyone's dream job is in the arts. There are plenty of people who dream of jobs in engineering, science, politics, teaching, business, medicine, and so on. Contrariwise, many passions offer no hope of a dream job — raising your kids being an obvious example. WC Porter just had a good post on doing what you love and trying to make money at it, and it's good to keep all your options in mind — if you can't find your dream job, maybe you can create it. (Still, it's worth trying to find work worth doing and then trying to land a job doing it. Certainly, it's better than doing work you hate.)

It's easy for a dream job to become a nightmare. Sometimes your passion isn't quite as much fun when you have to perform on schedule. Sometimes your dream job turns out to include less following your passion and more filling out status reports, soothing customers, and running everything past legal. And, more than just sometimes, you find yourself competing with people who'll do the work for free, because it's their passion too.

Still, none of that is to say that you should give up on your dream job. Just be realistic about it and go into it with your eyes open. One part of keeping your eyes open is considering the other two possibilities: day job and early retirement.

Day Job

If you want to follow your passion, but also have to earn a living, one practical option is a day job. There are whole categories of day jobs that are popular with people whose passion makes demands on their time. Aspiring actors and dancers, for example, often end up working as waiters — because it's a job that lets them schedule around casting calls, auditions, and rehearsals.

The main criterion for a day job (aside from paying enough to support you) is that it doesn't drain you of whatever you need to follow your passion. A day job that leaves you exhausted might make it impossible to pursue your passion for music with late-night gigs. Working as a software engineer, I found that certain kinds of work seemed to use up whatever it was that let me write fiction. It was just certain tasks, so generally I could work at the day job all day and then come home and write in the evening. If that hadn't been true, I might have needed to find a new day job.

The best sort of day job for someone with a passion is one where you put in your hours and then you're done. Any kind of hourly work is good. Salaried work is less good — you're expected to get the job done no matter how long it takes. Worst is the sort of high-stress job where you're spending your nights worrying about your bosses, clients, customers, processes, or deliverables, and find that you can't focus on your passion. Because of that, a lot of people who go with the day job end up working what would otherwise be considered a low-end job, because it's one that leaves them with time and energy to follow their passion.

Even so, resist the temptation to settle for a job that's bad — in particular, for a job where either they don't respect you or where you don't respect the work. There is so much work that's worth doing, it's just stupid to flush your life away doing work that's worthless — even if it pays a little more. The downside of the "day job" strategy is that you're spending forty hours a week doing something other than your passion. Don't compound that by spending those hours doing something that you don't respect.

Retire Early

You can retire early if you combine a high-paying day job with a certain amount of frugality. The more frugality, the earlier you can retire. (Higher pay lets you retire earlier too, but if you work out the math, it doesn't help as much as you'd think. Between taxes, the almost inevitable higher standard of living, and the extra work that the higher-pay jobs tend to require, it turns out that frugality is the adjustment that ends up making the big difference.)

I covered the "retire early" scenario just a few days ago in my post on buying your way out of the rat race.

The main thing I'd caution against is the tendency to defer following your passion.

It's one thing to have to fit your passion into the spaces left around a job, a family, and all the other things you have to do. That's normal. It's fine. It's even good. Unless your passion is an odd one, the connections that grow out of living your life will feed into your passion.

But it's altogether different to put your passion aside until some future when you'll have enough time. That's almost always the wrong choice. Follow your passion right along. That's how it grows. That's how you remember why you're putting in the time and effort. That's what keeps your soul together.

As long as you don't put off following your passion, any of these strategies can work.

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Guest's picture

The recipe is, get out of debt, reduce fixed expenses, have some income, save some money.

John DeFlumeri Jr

Guest's picture

As for me, the best variant would be the combination of dream and day job that gives the opportunity to retire early. It would be a real dream job that brings you satisfaction and money. Of course, in most cases it's just a dream. It's very hard to find a constant high-paying day job that you like. But it would be so great to go to job every morning with pleasure. Besides, if it's really high-paid, you won't even have to apply for payday loans.

Guest's picture

As an actress, I always chose temp jobs where I could sit DOWN (as being less fatiguing) - & went on auditions on late lunch hours or disguised as doctors' visits! At the time, the plus was having an available PHONE (not a problem nowadays with cell phones...) I also chose to work in entertainment-related jobs so I could learn as much about the business as possible - and I worked with computers, which has come in very handy. The best take on this issue was a book I found in the 80's called FREELANCE FOREVER. It's the only thing I have ever found to tackle this problem realistically - & even though it was written for painters and such, I really learned a LOT from reading it.
When I worked days, living in a central location came in very handy, as I could go home, grab dinner & then NAP before I went out on my artistic afterhours work. (I also learned to NAP in my car at lunch hour - having a car being a perk of L.A.)That said, I think I acquired more valuable skills than I would have as a waiter...& I didn't have to expose myself to an unforgiving public....You have to make hard choices in order to survive. My pennypinching skills were vital to living on my modest temp income - I used to joke that I had 3 jobs - my acting, my office work & the job of living on my income! But I have survived - and avoided being frustrated and embittered, which is often the result of "selling out." It's a passion if not doing it leaves a gaping hole in your life. Otherwise, go for a more regular existence.

Guest's picture

When I had a stressful full-time job in the non-profit world, I used to joke how great it would be to have a job that was mindless, and that I could LEAVE behind at the end of the day. When I got laid off, I found one. It started as a way to help get some income, but thanks to a great boss I am able to do this job and freelance (I formed my own business at his advice) WHILE at work a few days a week. I try to schedule the visits to clients on the days I'm not at the office job, but getting to check email and reply to clients even when I am at the office job works out great.
Trying to find one of these could help you do your dream job. It worked for me! I'm not rich, but I am so much less stressed and healthier, happier, and making an honest living doing what I love.

Guest's picture

Great post! My passion is to write manga (Japanese comics). And you know something? Every comic book artist that isn't too well known can be found at your local coffee shop, McDonalds, or Wal-Mart. Why? Because it's one of the most difficult ways to make a living, even if you're exceptionally talented.

I love the post by the way. I've just recently taken some of my projects off of the back burner and am using that "spare time" to take care of them.

Thanks for the inspirational post =]

Sierra Black's picture

This is a neat post. I've found a way to combine my lifelong creative passion (writing) with my passion for raising my kids by writing about the experience of raising them. I'm starting to make some decent money at it, too.


Sierra Black - embracing the wild heart of parenting at www.childwild.com

Guest's picture

This is not as simple as you suggest. I have tried for the better part of thirty years to find something I am passionate about. I have yet to find anything that interests me enough to be my day job, let alone something I do a day job to fund. Not everyone has a passion.

Philip Brewer's picture

Prompted by this comment, I wrote a post on Finding Your Passion.

Guest's picture

I've never really seen it broken down that way before. Its quite motivational---makes me want to continue to pursue my passion so I CAN quit my day job, and so I CAN reitre early, and so I CAN spend more time with my son!

Guest's picture

Great subject matter. I have found that the more I make the more I spend. It is tough to be frugal when the money is flowing in. I have my retirement plans in place but I like to spend the "extra" Payday.

Once a family starts it is tough to leave a job you hate to find your passion. Different story if you are single.

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

THanks for the mention Philip!

The Writer's Coin  |  Follow me on Twitter

Guest's picture

I love your attitude towards having a "day job". This is the option I chose. My passions have been channeled into my blog about personal growth and a small business, but I'm not hoping to make money from them soon. So I work at a stress-free "day job" rather than in accounting/finance. Thank you for pointing out that someone who's trying to make a living from their passion shouldn't feel guilty about taking a "day job" rather than pursuing a traditional "career".

Guest's picture

As someone who has a passion for science and engineering, I thank you for the acknowledgment! After I graduated from college and worked for a couple of years in a mindless technician job, I re-evaluated my career and decided to go to graduate school to earn a doctorate rather than spend 10-15 years in the industry to get the same job that I could get after 5 years in grad school. Now, ten+ years later, my student loans are paid off; I have a house, a flexfuel vehicle, and a hefty retirement account/plan. I do what I was meant to do - solve scientific and technical problems in a research field. I have time (and money!)enough for recreational pursuits. I am content.

Guest's picture

Great post. My partner lives by this very idea. His passion is sculpting and his day job is flexible enough to allow time for him to pursue it.

My dilemma, like the guest above, is identifying my passion(s)! I'm talented at a wide variety of things, but no one thing sticks out. Creative writing? Photography? Food blogging? Graphic design?

Any tips on finding your passion, or at least sifting through options?

Philip Brewer's picture

As long as there are things you want to do, I don't think you need to worry.  (I've known some people who couldn't think of anything they really wanted to do.  Them I could never come up with a way to help.)

Remember that it's perfectly normal for your passion to change over time.  The days of having just one career are almost as far gone as the days of having just one job--and that's okay.  A couple years ago, several of the Wise Bread writers (including me) talked about theirs in a post called what is your dream job.  I talk about how my dream job changed from programming to writing.

So, I'd start with the basics:  What do you choose to do when you have control over your own schedule?  What list of activities for the day makes you jump out of bed?

Then, think about what you do that's of value to other people.  That's important in two ways.  First, it means it's something you might be able to get paid to do.  Second, something that's important to others has a greater chance of being deeply satisfying.

If you've already got a job, you can take an incremental approach--which aspects of your current job are most satisfying and which are boring or annoying?  What would your job look like if you did more of the former and less of the latter?  Could you talk to your boss about restructuring your job to look like that?  I talk some about that in a post called find work worth doing and then I talk about other aspects of it in a post called how to get a job--learn the secret from a bad movie.

There are a few other posts on Wise Bread on finding your passion.  Here are the ones I could find:

Guest's picture

Speaking of Dream Jobs... Theres this cool new contest called Second Best Job in the World (do you remember the one from last year by that Australian company? Same kind of thing, only withs hopping and its sponsored by an internet price comparison website) where you get to be an "international shopping consultant"- aka you get to shop-til-you drop and then you get PAID... the winner will be so lucky! Obviously, it's not going to help you in the long term if you're lets say interested in accounting, but publicity is always good, no matter who you are! I'm guessing they're looking for younger people, since you can't bring family along...

Guest's picture

Great subject matter. I have found that the more I make the more I spend. It is tough to be frugal when the money is flowing in. I have my retirement plans in place but I like to spend the "extra" Payday.

Once a family starts it is tough to leave a job you hate to find your passion. Different story if you are single.

Guest's picture

Everyone will need to find their own path. I just had a guest post by my yoga teacher talking about how she started her own yoga business.
I'm working toward exiting the rat race early so I can pursue my interests.

Guest's picture

Frugality is much easier then it sounds. Once you get accustomed to living that way, it becomes second nature. I had a low paying job right out of school but wanted to move out. I learned how to live frugally but still enjoy my normal lifestyle. Small things like better grocery shopping and cutting out pointless add ons to shrink all my major bills. Trying to convince your friends or family to do the same can be a tough task.

Guest's picture

Have no enough money to buy a house? Worry no more, because this is available to get the business loans to work out such kind of problems. Therefore get a small business loan to buy all you need.

Guest's picture

Exactly right, do the things that are line with your passion and you'll never regret what you did! I came across a video that talks about why you should do what you love and forget the things that you don't want to do! I learned a lot from it. http://marieforleo.com/2012/01/safe-job-or-do-what-i-love/